The World Turned Upside Down: Bill of Rights or Bill of Wrongs?

Theresa May’s recent announcement that she is to fight the 2020 United Kingdom Election on a Human Rights mandate, reported first in the Daily Telegraph and then by the Russian news service RT, may come as a bit of a surprise to those who are familiar with her longstanding opposition to the European Court of Human Rights. For, in spite of her previous opposition to Brexit, the European Court of Human Rights, and its ability to interfere in matters which many Eurosceptics have long seen as purely constitutional, has been one key issue that has put the present British Prime Minister onto a collision course with her European counterparts in Brussels and elsewhere. Once the original context of a distinctly British Bill of Rights is properly understood on both an historical and a political level, however, the reasons for the Prime Minister’s directly adversarial stance in these matters can be seen for what they are.

Although at face value May appears to be attempting to take Britain forward, by giving the British People their own unique Bill of Rights, in reality she is taking them back to the late Seventeenth Century, to the period directly after the so called ‘Glorious Revolution’. When, in the words of one of the greatest revolutionary writers of the Enlightenment Period, following ‘the English constitutional settlement of 1689, confirming the deposition of James II and the accession of William and Mary, guaranteeing the Protestant succession, and laying down the principles of parliamentary supremacy’, to quote the eighteenth century Radical, Thomas Paine, adherents of the incoming English Whig Ascendancy sought to set themselves free from ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ ‘and reestablished the liberty of Protestants to have arms for their defence within the rule of law.’

Elsewhere in this same work, his celebrated ‘Rights of Man’, dated 4th November 1789 and written primarily as a response to those who sought to quell the flames of European Revolution, ‘Being An Answer To Mr. Burke’s Attack On The French Revolution’ in particular, Paine describes the Seventeenth Century ‘Bill of Rights’, and the so called ‘Act of Settlement’ which was to establish the present ruling dynasty, that of the House of Hanover, in the opening years of the succeeding century, in the following terms:

 ‘The act, called the Bill of Rights, comes here into view. What is it, but a bargain, which the parts of the government made with each other to divide powers, profits, and privileges? You shall have so much, and I will have the rest; and with respect to the nation, it said, for your share, YOU shall have the right of petitioning. This being the case, the bill of rights is more properly a bill of wrongs, and of insult. As to what is called the convention parliament, it was a thing that made itself, and then made the authority by which it acted. A few persons got together, and called themselves by that name. Several of them had never been elected, and none of them for the purpose. From the time of William a species of government arose, issuing out of this coalition bill of rights; and more so, since the corruption introduced at the Hanover succession by the agency of Walpole; that can be described by no other name than a despotic legislation. Though the parts may embarrass each other, the whole has no bounds; and the only right it acknowledges out of itself, is the right of petitioning. Where then is the constitution either that gives or restrains power?’

For, in spite of the fact that, according to the Guardian newspaper, Theresa May recently hired the former head of Tony Blair’s policy unit ‘to review workers’ rights’, the Bill of Rights we are likely to see is almost certainly going to be more akin to the ‘bill of wrongs’ described in the preceding paragraph than anything remotely resembling many of the freedoms we have previously enjoyed, or those so many of us so desperately want. Indeed, according to the Daily Mirror, the Prime Minister’s recent vow to create ‘a new centre ground in British politics’, which came under press scrutiny back in October, is little more than a rather weak and feeble attempt to recruit Labour voters.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 followed hot on the heels of Monmouth’s Rebellion, and the ‘Bloody Assizes’ of Judge Jeffreys; which sent some 1,400 Rebel Prisoners to the gallows, the block or to the colonies. There, many of those who had been spared the axe or the rope were to follow those who had died of the ‘Gaol Fever’, most probably Typhus, in prison at home; by way of a slower and often lingering death from malnutrition, over work or tropical disease. In many ways these victims of late seventeenth century oppression could and should be compared to the thousands of victims of contemporary government ‘Austerity Measures’ who are viewed by the ruthless Neoliberalist policy makers of our own century as surplus to requirement. This considered, May and her cronies in the Tory Party would do well to remember that, after the Glorious Revolution, Jeffreys himself was to be incarcerated in the Tower of London where he too likewise succumbed to disease on April 18th 1689.

arrestduke

             The Arrest of the Duke of Monmouth after the Battle of Sedgemoor marked the onset of the ‘Bloody Assizes’.

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About tartantombraider

A lineal descendant of Captain Robert Ferguson (1719-1799) the older brother of the great Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher and historian Adam Ferguson (1723-1816); the friend of Hume, Gibbon and Adam Smith. Also related to the great feminist author and playwright Rachel Ferguson. Have written extensively on a vast range of subjects, published in print as book author and in various journals and magazines into the bargain. Early work as an underground film maker on the early Goa Trance and radical anti-CJB political scene in the 1990s has since become more refined and ambitious and I am now a regular contributor to such high profile events as the Portobello Film Festival Annual Film Maker's Convention.....:
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